Healing From a Toxic Childhood? The Two Words You Need Most
How to get unstuck and move forward.
Posted Jan 16, 2018
I’ll bet you’re wondering what those two words might be, and your brain is offering up suggestions: Move on. Forgive them. Be kinder. Stay mindful. Practice understanding. Distance yourself. Be aware. Look forward. It’s past. Stay strong.
Nope. The two words are let go. These two little words—five letters in all—are hugely important, because contrary to popular opinion, which always tells us that it takes effort to keep trying and hang in, the default position for humans is persistence. What’s hard is quitting and letting go. The reasons are both complicated and simple.
We are much more inclined to stay put than we are to move on, because we prefer the status quo—even if it’s lousy and painful—to parts unknown. Humans are famously risk-averse—Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for showing precisely that — and have all sorts of habits of mind which are more apt to keep them stuck than not. We are more strongly motivated by intermittent reinforcement—having what we desire happen some of the time—than we are by getting what we want all of the time, or even never getting it. That’s particularly relevant if you grew up starved for love, approval, and support. The occasional scrap of any of those things—or even a momentary lull in nonstop criticism—will have the same effect as a five-course meal.
Additionally, we tend to reach for rose-colored glasses and see a loss as a “near win”; that’s what keeps people at slot machines when the symbols almost match and, more positively, keeps us plugging away at golf. Again, when that scrap is proffered—perhaps your mother sounds vaguely interested in what you’re doing, or your sibling actually pays you a compliment—you’re all full of hope, sure that a victory is close at hand: “They’ll realize they’re wrong about me”; “Mom will finally see me for who I am”; “Maybe the crazy nonsense is ending and my family will be normal.” In the same way, the habit of rumination—more pronounced in women than in men—keeps us focused on difficult and painful situations and interactions, past and present, and inclines us to replay history and second-guess ourselves, rather than act and move forward.
What letting go isn’t
But letting go doesn’t mean pretending that the past never happened, that you weren’t hurt or affected, or that your parent or parents should be somehow let off the hook and not held responsible. It means learning to discriminate between the ways of thinking you must let go of and the emotions that need to be tossed aside that keep you stuck, and the ways of thinking and feeling that will help you move you forward and help you heal.
The fancy name for the kind of letting go I’m talking about is goal disengagement. This isn’t a one-step thing, like the image that comes into your mind when you think of the words “let go”—you’re likely to visualize the string falling free from your grasp and the balloon rising in the air, or the moment your hand slips and what you’re holding falls with a thud—but a process, and a complex one at that.
It’s basically a four-step process that involves letting go of the thinking patterns that have maintained the status quo (cognitive disengagement), managing the emotions that accompany giving up or quitting (affective disengagement), giving up on that earlier goal (motivational disengagement), and putting plans into action for a new goal (behavioral disengagement).
Each of these steps requires a slightly different skill set: Cognitive disengagement requires that you stop thinking about why you didn’t achieve the goal you set and worrying and/or ruminating about it, stop running “what if” scenarios in your head that are likely to convince you that maybe you shouldn’t let go after all. Affective disengagement requires that you deal with all the emotions that are aroused when you fail to achieve what you set out to do; that includes feeling guilty, beaten down, or blaming yourself. Motivational disengagement requires you to stop thinking about that goal and start planning new objectives, including where you want to go now and what you want to try. Finally, behavioral disengagement requires you to act and start planning how you will change your future.
How this applies to a toxic childhood
In case this sounds too abstract, let me put the terms into the context of dealing with a toxic childhood. I’m extrapolating here from the many interviews I conducted for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, and casting the circumstances in a general way.
Your childhood was one in which you felt unloved, unseen, and marginalized, and were subject to endless criticism and perhaps scapegoating. You did what you could to armor yourself, or perhaps you placated others instead; in any case, you did what you could to deal until you finally moved out into your young adult life. It’s at that moment that you began to make your own choices about where to live, friends, how to support yourself, partners, and lovers, but also how to deal with your family of origin. Most unloved daughters—relishing the fact that they’re out from under their mothers’ direct influence—do little to challenge the status quo and do what they can to manage the situation. It’s when their efforts to manage begin to fail—they are still hurt by encounters with their parent or parents or perhaps siblings, are unable to manage the resulting emotions, still feel adrift, and are unable to set healthy boundaries—that they realize they’re stuck and have to disengage and find a new way of relating to their family.
Cognitive disengagement is made difficult, because the cultural tropes about family underscore the importance of staying the course (“She’s your mother,” “Everyone’s family is difficult,” “You turned out fine, so it couldn’t have been so bad”), and because the unloved daughter is likely to mistrust her own judgment after years of being told she’s less than and likely to be prone to second-guessing (“Maybe she’s right, and I am too sensitive,” “She’s done the best she can, and maybe I’m wrong to ask for more”).
Affective disengagement is hard not just because of past pain, which arouses all manner of emotions, from anger to sorrow, as well as feelings of guilt, shame, and disloyalty at even contemplating managing your connection to your family differently. Then, too, is the fear that they’re right about you, and you’re just wrong on every level. Add in the fact that children who don’t get the attuned attention they need in infancy and childhood have trouble regulating emotion anyway, and you can see why this part of the process of letting go is so hard.
Motivational disengagement is thwarted by what I call the “core conflict”—the tension between your recognition that you need to manage your relationship with your mother and family of origin and your continuing need for your mother’s love and support and your hopefulness that it can be won. The conflict effectively keeps a daughter stuck in the status quo.
And as long as the core conflict continues, acting is impossible, so the stage of behavioral disengagement—of setting new goals for your life and relationship—never happens.
Small steps to letting go
If you find yourself stuck, these strategies may help you break the logjam. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route, of course, but there are things you can do to help yourself.
1. Recognize that it’s not your fault.
Self-blame, which is a default position, keeps you stymied, and thinking that there’s some flaw in you that you could fix and things would be fine does too. Realizing that you’re not to blame brings with it the recognition that you cannot fix this on your own; your parent or parents must cooperate.
2. Don’t normalize abusive behavior.
Children normalize the behavior experienced in their families of origin, and it’s not uncommon for them to continue to do so as adults. Don’t excuse or become inured to verbal abuse; register that it’s happening, and react calmly and in a straightforward way. You have the right to set rules about how you wish to be treated, even with a parent or relative.
3. Set boundaries.
You will need to carve out mental space to figure out how to manage the relationship. Do whatever you need to—cutting down contact or limiting it—to be able to do so.
4. Build your emotional skill set.
Try to identify your emotions as precisely as you can—an important part of emotional intelligence—and see if you can trace the source of your feelings, especially when you think about your relationship with your mother and other family members. Work on distinguishing guilt from shame, for example, as well as negative feelings about yourself as either deserving of poor treatment or undeserving of love.
5. Manage your thoughts.
Rumination and worry can keep you totally stuck. Research on intrusive thoughts by Daniel Wegner shows that trying to suppress thoughts only results in their being more persistent, so you need to try other techniques. One, suggested by him, is to assign yourself a worry time; another is to permit yourself to confront those intrusive thoughts and think about the worse-case scenario if those worries came true, and you had to deal with them.
Letting go is an art that is hard to learn, but can be mastered.
The observations about goal disengagement are taken from my book, Quitting—Why We Fear It and Why We Shouldn’t—In Life, Love, and Work. New York: Da Capo Press, 2015.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression,” American Psychologist (November, 2011): 671-670.